Suwon Bluewings v Jeonbuk Motors, Wednesday 18th August 2010, 7.30pm.

Attending this Korean FA Cup quarter final was a bit of a bonus as when I’d discovered a few days earlier that it was a 7.30pm kick-off I’d as good as decided that getting there was not really possible. I’d been to Suwon a week previously for the South Korea v Nigeria game that started at 8pm and only just managed to make that. The half an hour earlier start for this game meant that it didnt really seem like a feasible proposition. I couldn’t quite get it out of my mind though and deliberately didn’t plan anything for that evening, keeping my options open in case I decided to give it a try.

What finally convinced me to go was that when I looked out of my office window at a quarter to six, it was pouring down. Not only that, but all of the three umbrellas that I currently own were in my apartment rather than under my desk. Bear with me, it does make sense. Well, more sense than a lot of stuff I do.  I remembered that the first time that I visited Suwon it took me an hour on the subway and so I thought to myself that as I don’t have to go outside of my office block to get to the subway, I could be at Suwon for around ten past seven without the prospect of the soaking that walking from the office to my apartment would bring about. Clever, eh? Perhaps. I might just have been delaying the inevitable encounter with the rain and I’d also no idea how long a taxi would take to get from Suwon subway to the Blue Wings Stadium, but in a classic piece of the short-term thinking that influences most of my actions these days I gave it a try.

It all went very well to begin with. I left the office bang on six o’clock and by ten past I was on the first train. I was at Sadang for twenty past where I made the first of two line changes and at ten past seven I arrived at Suwon where I was pleased to discover that it wasn’t raining. So far so good. There were a line of taxis  waiting outside of the station and I was fortunate to get a driver who was aware that there was a football stadium in Suwon. Actually there’s two stadiums, but as I was going to the more famous of them I wasn’t worried.

The plan fell apart as we hit the rush hour traffic and we crawled along with the game having already kicked off and me alternating between looking at my watch and peering at the skyline trying to catch a glimpse of the distinctive winged roof of  Suwon’s ground. Ten minutes after kick off we arrived there after what was close on a half hour taxi journey to cover perhaps three or four miles. He dropped me at the south east corner of the stadium which was an error on my part as I should have remembered that the ticket office was over at the north west corner. I walked the length of the winged west stand, noticing the Jeonbuk fans behind the goal in the south stand.

It's a great roof.

A couple of touts approached as I got near to the ticket office and offered me seats in the east stand for five and ten thousand won respectively. Normally I would have taken one of them but as I just wanted to be inside the ground as quickly as possible and I didn’t want to have to walk to the other side of the stadium, I  knocked them back and went to the ticket office instead. Fortunately there was no queue, less fortunately they told me that you had to be a membership card holder to sit in the west stand. I bought a ticket for the east stand for twelve thousand won and set off for my walk around the stadium, trying not to catch the eyes of the smug looking touts on the way past.

By the time I got into the ground the clock on the scoreboard showed that eighteen minutes had gone and that the game was still goalless. Lee Dong Gook was back up front for Jeonbuk, having missed the last two games due to his suspension for elbowing a Busan defender in the chops a couple of weeks earlier. There wasn’t really much of a crowd, with the upper tiers virtually empty. Jeonbuk looked to have brought a few hundred fans with them whilst Suwon had a very good turnout behind the north stand goal.

After recovering from his sore elbow, Lee Dong Gook is back leading the line.

The FA Cup winners qualify for one of the four Champions League spots over here and so it carries a bit more of a reward than just the glory of winning the trophy. ’Just the glory’ sounds a bit glib, I’d love the Boro to have `just the glory’ of winning the FA Cup. For the first few years of our existence we had never got beyond the last eight, the first one hundred and twenty one years to be precise and my childhood was littered with losing quarter finals at places such as Birmingham, Orient and Wolves. It was the Riverside years before we managed to get to semi finals and even once the final itself. But we’ve never won it and it doesnt look too realistic a dream for us in the near future.

We had a great chance a couple of years ago with the big boys having been knocked out and only a home tie against Championship side Cardiff between us and a Wembley semi final. Lee Dong Gook was still at the Boro then, but he was out of favour by that time and didn’t even make the bench in what was one of the most disappointing Middlesbrough performances that I can remember.

I’ve just googled the team from that day and we had some really useful players then, streets ahead of the ones that we have now. It was a team that was more than capable of beating the other semi finalists Portsmouth, Barnsley and West Brom and lifting the trophy.

Schwarzer, Young, Wheater, Huth, Pogatetz, O’Neil (Johnson 59), Arca, Rochemback, Downing, Alves (Mido 46), Sanli.
Subs Not Used: Turnbull, Boateng, Grounds.

But, whatever. It’s gone. Just like Birmingham, Orient and Wolves, all games that, perhaps with the optimism of youth, I had also expected us to win and ended up disappointed.

It was a scrappy remainder of the first half at Suwon with a few yellows being handed out, mainly to the Jeonbuk players. Luiz Henrique had a real go at the ref at one point, who you could see was desperate for the ball to go out so that he could call him over and book him for dissent.

Green Army.

Ten minutes before half time Suwon took the lead with a Kwak Hee Ju header after a disputed free kick was floated into the box. The Suwon fans behind the goal celebrated by bouncing up and down, similar to the way that Rangers do, edging a yard or two from side to side as they did it. They also waved their flags, two of which had the face of Che Guevara on them. He seems pretty popular at the football over here, Jeonbuk had no fewer than five flags with that iconic image on them.

Five Che's for Jeonbuk, two Che's for Suwon.

At half time I went in search of something to eat, having not had anything since lunchtime. It was fairly meagre pickings with a large bag of crisps being the best option. One of the differences that I’ve noticed between home and over here is the way people eat their crisps. In the UK we tend to open the packet at the top, the show-offs amongst us occasionally squeezing the bag to pop it open. In Korea though, crisps are eaten from the side of the packet, with a vertical tear being made and then the bag held longways. Just an observation.

The second half wasn’t much better than the first. I moved into the upper tier and closer to the Suwon fans as that was the end that Jeonbuk were attacking. The home supporters kept up a good level of support throughout the half with songs to the tunes of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da and Yellow Submarine amongst others.

View from the upper tier.

 Lee Dong Gook didnt really have any scoring chances, although on the whole nor did his team mates. Each side had a man sent off as the consquences of all the early yellows took effect and as the time ticked away Jeonbuk gradually threw more men forward. In the dying minutes they were playing with a line of four strikers as well as Lee Dong Gook roaming just behind them. The remaining four outfield Jeonbuk players had to somehow cover all the midfield and defence positions between them and some quite sizeable gaps opened up as they pressed for an equaliser. Inevitably Suwon broke away and in injury time Yeom Ki Hun added the second goal that sealed their semi final spot.

Two Nil and its all over.

As I left the ground at the end I was approached by a teenage lad who asked me if I was Joe Johnson. As the only bloke of that name that I’m familiar with is a fifty odd year old snooker player I was happy to confirm that I wasn’t. This tends to happen to me quite a bit, being mistaken for someone else. At the baseball game at the weekend I was asked if I was the pitcher’s Dad. It’s as if a foreigner wouldn’t be at a sporting event unless he had a specific reason for being there, other than wanting to watch the game.

Surely some mistake.

I checked for other famous Joe Johnson’s on the internet afterwards, doubting that mid-eighties snooker stars would have much of a fanbase over here and uncovered an American basketball player that seemed much more likely to have been the object of the lad’s question. Although that particular Mr Johnson was considerably younger and taller than me. Considerably blacker as well, come to think of it.

I can see the resemblance.

Having extricated myself from the autograph hunter I found myself surrounded by a group of younger lads, maybe ten or eleven years old. After the usual “Hello, how are you? You are very handsome“ that I’m sure they learn at school as the standard greeting to people from out of town, they asked me “Do you like Suwon?“.

“Jeonbuk“ I replied, to which they laughed manically and danced around, pointing at me whilst chanting “Loser, loser“. I think I preferred the simplicity of the old days where a local would ask you the time and if your accent gave you away as a visiting supporter, he just kicked your head in.

For the journey back I waited at the bus stop that I’d used the previous week and asked the driver of the first bus if he went to Seoul. “Sadang“ he replied to my delight.

My bus.

Sadang is only ten minutes away from my apartment on the subway and with a half hour bus journey to get there I was back home an hour after the final whistle. I’ll remember that for next time I want to go to Suwon and it’s not raining.

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